Saturday, September 26, 2009

The miraculous commonplace

My mention of the poet Howard Nemerov yesterday reminds me of another of his poems that has long haunted my imagination, called "Seeing Things":
Close as I ever came to seeing things
The way the physicists say things really are
Was out on Sudbury Marsh one summer eve
When a silhouetted tree against the sun
Seemed at my sudden glance to be afire:
A black and boiling smoke made all its shape.
We have an incident here not unlike that defining moment in Annie Dillard's Pilgrim At Tinker Creek when she sees "the tree with the lights in it." A backyard cedar, illuminated with sunlight. A particular slant of light set "each cell buzzing with flame." It was less like seeing than being seen, she writes. A kind of miracle. An apparition into which she pours her spirit.

Nemerov continues:
Binoculars resolved the enciphered sight
To make it clear the smoke was a cloud of gnats,
Their millions doing such a steady dance
As by the motion of the many made the one
Shape constant and kept it so in both the forms
I'd thought to see, the fire and the tree.
Ah, yes, the binoculars! The fire that knocked Annie Dillard "breathless by a powerful glance" was not a divinity's glance at all but a flood of photons rom the Sun. And Nemerov's fiery tree is revealed as a cloud of gnats. A cloud of gnats! The miraculous is not a miracle at all but only a sudden flaring of the commonplace.
Strike through the mask? you find another mask,
Mirroring mirrors by analogy
Make visible. I watched till the greater smoke
Of night engulfed the other, standing out
On the marsh amid a hundred hidden streams
Meandering down from the Concord to the sea.
But wait! The commonplace is miraculous. The cloud of gnats, the flood of photons, are themselves as replete with mystery as any tree made suddenly luminous. That is what Nemerov means by seeing things "the way the physicists say things really are": To strike through the mask, and then another mask, and then another. To plunge into the possibly infinite depths of the ordinary. To walk through the world wary, primed for astonishment, one foot in front of the other, in a worldscape watered by a hundred hidden streams.